The nation's bankers are increasingly becoming direct targets of money- laundering scams originating in Nigeria, prompting regulators in at least one state to issue warnings to the state's banks and credit unions.
During the past few weeks, almost a dozen banks in Connecticut and one in Massachusetts have received faxed letters from alleged Nigerian business officials, asking the bankers to designate accounts so the Nigerians can transfer millions of dollars in illicit funds out of their country.
The purported officials offered to bribe the bankers with 30% of the total deposit if they agreed to keep the transaction secret. They went on to ask the bankers for copies of bank letterhead, invoice sheets for a new bank account, and telephone and fax numbers.
The banks instead forwarded the letters to state regulators, who contacted prosecutors and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.
"This was the first time that we've encountered anything like this," said Thomas Curry, Massachusetts banking commissioner.
The new twist has caught law enforcement officials off-guard. For several years, hundreds of such letters have been sent to businessmen and more recently private individuals asking them to use their own existing bank accounts for money-laundering, but the current wave represents a significant surge in letters sent directly to bankers, according to regulators and law enforcement personnel.
"We've inundated the business community with information about these scams so they've started to go to the consumer," said Paul M. Griffo, spokesman for the inspection service, the law enforcement arm of the U.S. Postal Service. "But it would seem strange that they'd go to the banks because bankers would probably be among the most savvy people when it comes to being aware of these kinds of things."
The development has alarmed regulators enough to prompt the Connecticut banking department to send out a warning to all institutions it regulates. And press coverage of that effort has led to a flurry of calls from private businesses to the department.
"From the nature of the proposals, it leads you to be quite suspicious," said Greg Futoma, banking department spokesman. "We're just telling banks to be very cautious when approached with something of this nature."
Law enforcement officials have been waging an information campaign for several years against these scams, which have been estimated by the U.S. State Department to cost victims about $250 million dollars annually. In addition, two Americans were killed and seven Japanese disappeared when they traveled to Lagos to meet with the "officials," thought to be Nigerian organized crime figures.
The Secret Service even has a separate task force dedicated to the Nigerian scams.
But police have been stymied in their efforts to get officials in Lagos, the Nigerian capital, to cooperate enough. That's left little option but to obtain court orders to intercept all mail going to certain addresses before it even leaves U.S. soil, Mr. Griffo said. "It's just baffling that anyone would go for it," Mr. Griffo said. "If someone's asking for your bank account and pro forma invoices, red flags should go up everywhere. You're just giving away the store."